There are certain expectations that come with any filmmaker’s work based off the movies that have come before. Their styles, attitudes, and overall creative skill-set are usually visible to some degree throughout their career.
James Gunn is no different. His last feature, Slither, was an incredibly fun and gross monster movie that maintained a good balance between the laughs and the horror. That combined with his previous efforts should leave you unsurprised that his latest would include copious amounts of bodily fluids, a complete disregard for good taste, and a face made of fecal matter floating in a bowl.
What you don’t expect to see are scenes of real beauty, wit, and sincerity floating in a sadly disjointed mess of a film.
Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) loses his ex-addict wife (Liv Tyler) to a slick drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon) and descends into a spiral of depression. He only has two good memories in life, and one of them was the day he married Sarah. The other was a brief moment he spent “helping” a police officer apprehend a fleeing criminal. Lost, he prays for guidance and is literally touched by the Lord with the initiative to go forth and fight crime.
And so The Crimson Bolt is born.
He sets out to protect those in need of protecting whether it be from drug dealers, pedophiles, or even those motherfuckers who cut in lines. With justice on his side and a wrench in his hand, crime will be made to shut up. Things get more complicated when a young comic-book store clerk named Libby (Ellen Page) latches onto him and demands to be his sidekick, and soon the two are on a mission to save Sarah from the sixth and final degree of Kevin Bacon.
Super‘s main concept bears much similarity to recent films like Kick-Ass and Defendor, but it tries to blend the over-the-top antics of the former with the bleakness of mental illness seen in the latter. There’s fun to be had with Frank’s vigilante escapades, but there’s also a strong dose of sadness and loss. And then there’s the gobs of blood, sidekick-on-hero date rape, and sheer absurdity to make room for as well.
It’s a delicate balancing act, and writer/director James Gunn is simply not up to the task here. A few scenes, including an early one where Frank and Libby dance around their relationship as being “between the panels” of a comic book, are raw and touching in their emotional openness and power. Credit goes to Wilson for selling the scenes with a level of performance paper reams away from his stint on The Office.
But scenes like these are rare. Instead much of the film descends into gags and lines that don’t quite succeed including some cheap knocks at Christians, gross-out gags, and more. From there it jumps back and forth between bouts of graphic violence, satirical jab at the genre, and heartfelt moments of real tenderness. A rather brilliant opening animation is followed by a couple hand-drawn illustrations onscreen, but that stylistic touch then disappears until the film’s finale. It’s a case of elements working well individually but failing as parts of a whole.
For as disjointed and uneven as the film is, it features an incredibly interesting and fresh finale. The only problem is it isn’t the ending the film earns or deserves. It’s original, smart, and brave, and it gives respect to Frank’s faith and convictions in surprising ways. As with the new Simon Pegg/Nick Frost film Paul, the early jokes aimed at Christians are lazily written and unfunny. That’s a shame because religions of all kind practically beg to made fun of, but these bits just miss the mark.
Acting-wise the movie features some pleasant surprises as well. Wilson plays the nerdy dolt we’re used to seeing, but he also digs deep on a few occasions and comes up with some real emotion. Page begins the flick as mildly annoying, but as Libby gets into the role of sidekick Page lets loose with an unrestrained enthusiasm that is at times hilarious. Nathan Fillion‘s brief turn as a fictional Christian superhero is a fun and mildly raunchy take-off on Bible Man. And as expected, Bacon is ridiculous fun as a the lead heavy with a taste for brown eggs.
Super just isn’t sure what kind of movie it wants to be. The comedy works at times, but fails in its baseness at other times. The drama is too few and far between to take seriously. And the ending, which is beautifully done, is just not earned by the film that precedes it. Fans of the talent involved will want to jump in line for this one, but everyone else may want to avoid cutting in for any reason…
The Upside: Ellen Page is ridiculous fun; some inspired dialogue bits; Kevin Bacon and Gregg Henry are entertaining bastards; beautifully done ending
The Downside: The movie doesn’t earn or deserve the ending; disjointed style; highly inconsistent tone; the adorable Mia Matsumiya is relegated to being a background extra